Given its immensity, even a single dying glacier is an awesomely unnerving and scary sight. You want to avert your eyes. So a planet-full of dying glaciers – and the evidence is irrefutable that the majority of our glaciers are receding at an unprecedented rate – elevates the fear factor to epochal levels.
At this point, knowing that the state of the Earth’s ice is a precise scientific indicator of climate change and its perilous implications, you want to avert your mind. You want to shut it down and, if not actively deny, then passively ignore a cataclysm just too vast to ponder, let alone solve. That’s a very human tendency which, like so many other documentaries on this topic, Chasing Ice is determined to thwart. It does, but only a little – this film should have done more.
That’s because, in purely visual terms, ice is such a gorgeous subject. Or, as James Balog puts it: “Ice is this limitless universe of forms – insanely, ridiculously beautiful.” Consequently, documenting the erosion and disappearance of glaciers – all that blue-white sculptural splendour transformed into a mud-brown expanse – serves a three-fold purpose. A dying glacier (1) offers proof of climate change; (2) is vast enough to symbolize the problem’s vastness; and (3) allows us to frame the problem aesthetically, to see it through a lens of corroding beauty.
For all those reasons, Balog, a nature photog of considerable renown, established his “Extreme Ice Survey.” He assembled a team that, in 2007, began installing still cameras on glaciers around the world, including Iceland, Greenland, Alaska and Montana. Over the months and years, their accumulated snapshots could be gathered and turned into time-lapse photography studies – the melting would take place right before our unaverted eyes. Enacted under the harshest conditions, the plan was ambitious and beset with technical problems, yet eventually bore its bitter fruit. Balog fully succeeded.
Why, then, does the documentary partly fail? Well, its director, Jeff Orlowski, brought his own cameras along on the expedition. As a result, his footage competes with Balog’s, and, in the editing room, Orlowski clearly struggled to find the right mix. Certainly, there are moments of high drama, like the frames that capture a massive calving of the biggest glacier in Greenland. Suddenly, violently, ice cubes 40-storeys high are bobbing in a tray the “size of southern Manhattan” (a sadly apt and prophetic comparison, given its recent fate).
However, at other times, a tale of deflating glaciers seems only to yield an inflated doc, padded with interviews of Balog’s supportive family or accounts of his surgically repaired knee. The filler stalls the film en route to its climax – the unveiling of the crucial time-lapse photographs. Unfortunately, that climax takes place in a lecture hall, where the damning evidence is presented by Balog on stage to a gathered audience, and not directly to us. So, while the visuals of the glaciers’ approaching demise are graphic, the effect is oddly muted, almost as if Orlowski tripped over his punch line. The impact should be visceral and gut-wrenching; instead, it’s cool and cerebral – after all, we’re being lectured in a lecture hall.
Still, the major point is made. Along the way, in the midst of chasing ice, the film pauses to vent all that hot air expressed by the “fraud and fake” crowd at Fox News. But the last words, four and simple, rightly belong to Balog: “You can’t deny it.” No doubt – the iceman cometh.